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Tips to avoid the Fall burnout

The key to surviving and thriving is to have a good navigation strategy.


Fall is an intense time on campus, especially for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.  Whether you are starting at a new institution or returning for another year, the campus is filled with high energy and vibrancy and a good amount of stress and tension. With research showing that “one in three working-age Canadians experience burnout,” the key to surviving and thriving, is to have a good navigation strategy.

Create a personal information management system

As you read this you might be thinking about your overflowing inbox, to-do-list and even more information headed your way about processes, opportunities, expectations and more. The sheer volume can quickly become overwhelming.  Creating personal time management and task prioritization systems will help maintain habits that sustain your motivation throughout your time at the university. These systems also help lower your stress levels.

  • Check out campus resources on technology and productivity workshops for organizing information.  Outlook user? Create categories for specific themes to let you find them later, regardless of where they might be in your inbox.
  • Skim weekly newsletters from your faculty and departments.  For example, the faculties of graduate studies at University of British Columbia, McMaster University and Dalhousie University all have newsletters that curate information around key events happening on campus that might be of particular interest (ex. UBC’s GradUpdate).
  • Whether you use an old-school paper-bound agenda or an electronic calendar system, remember to carve out time for yourself, such as time with family and friends, grocery shopping, exercise and household chores.  Having breaks and intentionally setting time away from your work is just as important as meetings, lab work, or grant writing.

Not everything is urgent

Remember, you do not have to answer everyone’s messages right away! Email is an asynchronous communication system that makes life both better and worse at the same time. Before finding yourself buried, take some time to think about your communication preferences, and ask people about theirs. Remember to be aware of people’s preferences and expectations. If your supervisor leaves their door open to let you know they’re available to answer a question, take advantage! Haven’t received a response to your email after a reasonable amount of time? A polite reminder to nudge your message up in someone’s queue is usually appreciated. Whatever option you choose, make sure that you’re open to different communication preferences and try some of these techniques for better email correspondence:

  • Be strategic and clear with your subject line when sending a request. Are you asking for something? Sharing something? Reminding someone of something? A good subject line can let the reader know your needs from the start. E.g. Signature Required – Fellowship Application for Your Name
  • Send emails when people will read them. If your intended recipient is on vacation or away at a conference, consider scheduling your message to send after they return. You will avoid being caught in their overflowing inbox, and you can still relax knowing that you’ve sent the message.

Understand your limits

The first semester can have you jumping through a lot of hoops! Whether you’re taking classes, planning for co-ops or practicums, building bibliographies for literature reviews or thinking ahead to your comprehensive exams and scholarly research, the first semester will keep you busy. At the same time, you’ll be introduced to training programs for teaching, research, leadership and more and have opportunities to join student groups and get involved on and off campus. For postdoctoral researchers on one-year contracts, the flurry of activity can be even more intense. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is to be expected, but you can’t say yes to everything and not expect to burn out.

  • Instead of a straight no, try a not right now. Be honest about your capacity and ability to engage with different opportunities at this time. You won’t do anyone any good, including yourself, if you don’t take care of your own needs. If you would like to say yes, but the timing is off, build it into your plan for the next semester.
  • If your institution offers individual development plans (IDP) for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, take advantage! These programs will help you avoid unnecessary stress and will provide you with the tools and resources to effectively plan your time at your institution. For example, McGill has MyPath and University of Alberta has their own IDP. No IDP at your university? No problem! Imagine PhD is available for humanities and social sciences scholars and My IDP for those in STEM.
  • Recognize the season and stage you are currently occupying. Think about what moves you forward at your current stage and remember that you can say yes another time.  Sometimes it is the season to carve out additional time for family obligations and at another to invest in professional development.  Identifying which season you are in allows for you to be intentional about what energizes you and why.

Take it one step at a time

Take a deep breath and remember that while a certain amount of stress is to be expected, burnout isn’t. Use the campus resources you have available to develop your life skills and healthy habits for dealing with the stress of the fall semester. It may only be a four-month whirlwind, but the good habits you implement now can help you stay on track with the goals that you are setting for yourself this year.

Mabel Ho is the director of professional development and student engagement in the faculty of graduate studies at Dalhousie University. Catherine Maybrey is the coordinator for the office of postdoctoral affairs and research training in the school of graduate studies at McMaster University as well as the owner of CM Coaching Services.
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